There are a few signs that you’ve lived in Singapore way too long: (1) the 32 degrees (celsius) in ‘winter’ feels significantly cooler than the 32 degrees in summer and you find yourself reaching for a cardigan (or ‘jumper’ as we say in Australia). (2) You pronounce the number ‘three’ as ‘tree’ and pluralize words that are already plural eg underwears, and (3) you have a profound fear of the sun.
This fear of the sun will have you wearing long sleeves during the day, using umbrellas when it is not raining, and pavement-stepping like Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets in search of bits of shade to protect every other exposed part of you from those rays. You are prepared to fight people for that shade.
In Asia, and historically, a tanned skin indicates you are of a lower social standing, the assumption being that wealthy educated people work indoors while poor people have no choice but to work outdoors in more menial roles. Asians love white skin, envy it, and cannot understand that we Caucasians would intentionally tan it. The majority of skin products available here include whitening agents whether you want it or not, and skin whitening spa treatments are a lucrative business. And to advance the process, you can take Crystal Tomato© and other pills to whiten yourself from the inside out.
I grew up in Australia where my misspent youth was devoted to sun worshiping doused in coconut oil or baby oil. That was how we spent the most part of our holidays at the beach or the pool. A tan was a sign of good health and fitness. Historically, in western societies it was also associated with prosperity ie you have the time and income to be laying around in the sun, while white skin was associated with being sick or elderly.
So when we first arrived here 10+ years ago, we were amazed to have our condo pools to share with just a few other Australians and Europeans. The locals and Japanese expats only came out after 4pm if the sun had passed and even then they were still covered head to toe. This seemed like a perfect arrangement.
It took a couple of years for me to realize there was a direct correlation between sun and aging after attending a joint birthday party for a 40-year-old Singaporean woman and 40-year-old Australian. They did not look the same age; more like a decade separated them.
And so today, I am as Singaporean as you can get and I will walk the extra distance if it means I am out of reach of that demon sun.
I’ve just returned from a trip to my hometown of Rockhampton (Queensland, Australia) to celebrate 35 years since we, my girls and I, finished our senior year at the Rockhampton Girls’ Grammar School. But it was a celebration of much more than that. What we know now but didn’t appreciate then – we were in a hurry to be done and out of there – is that we had just spent five years of our lives in a confined and restrictive environment that would foster lifelong friendships and allegiances that can never be broken. No matter what has happened to us along the way, nothing can diminish those five years. And time has only served to bathe them in a golden light much the same colour as our old school berets.
We have a strange and enduring connection. It is difficult to explain. Most people I know do not even have reunions let alone actually look forward to seeing their school friends again. Perhaps it is because we knew each other before we were someone’s spouse or mother, doctor or lawyer. We knew each other before our life’s choices were known. And we did spend the five most tumultuous years of any girl’s life together. There was plenty of drama and trauma along the way and ‘incidents’ which now give us plenty to laugh about. I expect we will never tire of bringing out the old school yarns; soon enough we won’t even remember them as repeats.
On the Sunday morning of our reunion weekend, we were invited back to the school in Agnes Street for a tour around the old stomping grounds. We met a few of our teachers – Mrs Black (maths), Mrs Mulder (history) and Ms Phillips (Japanese). Unfortunately they remember way too much. J I also had a Homer Simpson d’oh moment when I arrived for the morning tea a little late (was watching the World Cup with my nephew) and felt compelled to apologize to Mrs Black on my way past her – it’s not like I had missed anything other than coffee and scones!
The school seemed so huge back then (1975-1979). That walk down the hill to what was the music room and primary school seemed steep and long; it’s not. The library seemed huge and lined with millions of books. It’s now an arts room and considerably smaller in stature to what we remember – in fact it is difficult to imagine we could ever hide in there. The new library is probably even smaller, even relatively so, since the school now utilizes ebooks.
In five more years we will reunite to wax lyrical once more and to fill in the recent part of our stories. Time will pass even more quickly than the last five years such is the nature of growing older. So glad though that I get to spend time with these amazing women while we can still remember our names and our recollections are still sort of consistent.